By Greg Johnson
A wave of change has swept the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
First, the title game will be played Jan. 7, which is about three weeks later than it has been contested traditionally. Second, the championship will be held in Frisco, Texas, for the first time after 13 consecutive years in Chattanooga, Tenn. Finally, the bracket has expanded from 16 to 20 teams.
All the newness couldn’t change one fact of life for the NCAA Division I Football Committee when it comes to making at-large selections: No matter how many berths are available, there will always be bubble teams and tough decisions have to be made.
Committee members completed the difficult task for 2010 Saturday and Sunday in Indianapolis, with the announcement of the championship field culminating the weekend.
This time, the 11-member committee faced the issue as the last two of the 10 at-large spots came down to about a half dozen teams. Ten teams qualified automatically by winning their conferences.
Before every vote for the at-large selections, the merits of the teams in the pool were discussed. Then the committee members voted anonymously.
Teams receiving at least 70 percent of the vote were moved on to the championship field. When the 70 percent threshold couldn’t be reached, the committee ranked the teams receiving votes to determine which should be added.
“You can make good arguments for any of the teams that didn’t get in,” said Jim O’Day, chair of the committee and director of athletics at Montana. “You have to set some parameters and look at each team separately. The committee does a great job doing that. We put in the time to make this process the best it can be.”
Newcomers on the committee found out what the veterans had already experienced in previous selections.
“You realize the narrow margins that exist between teams and how there are a lot of deserving teams that are right there on the wire but don’t make it,” said first-year member Jeff Bourne, director of athletics at James Madison. “Seeing the parity being created across the country was the thing that stood out to me.”
Bruce McCutcheon, a veteran of the committee, said the close scrutiny for the at-large selections was similar to past years.
Criteria such as strength of schedule and where games were played were among the factors that were weighed.
“We had good conversations about the pros and cons of teams,” said McCutcheon, director of athletics at Lafayette. “We all have discussions with the regional advisory committees that rank teams throughout the season. All of these factors are taken into consideration.”
The committee’s attention to detail makes it almost impossible to question the integrity of the process.
It’s worth noting that O’Day’s Montana Grizzlies (7-4) didn’t make the FCS field for the first time in 17 years, and Bourne’s James Madison (6-5) squad wasn’t selected despite a 21-16 victory over Virginia Tech, which won the Coastal Division in the Football Bowl Subdivision’s Atlantic Coast Conference.
After determining the best 10 at-large teams, the committee seeded the top five squads in the 20-team field. They were Appalachian State, William & Mary, Delaware, Montana State and Eastern Washington. The next step was to determine the 12 teams that would receive first-round byes.
Then came the pairing. Teams from the same conference are prohibited from playing each other in the first and second rounds (when both teams are playing their first games). With that understanding in mind, the committee placed the teams into the bracket based on geographic proximity. If teams are within 400 miles of each other, the mileage limit to bus teams, they are likely to be paired in the bracket, assuming they’re not from the same conference.
The home sites for the first two rounds are determined, in part, by the host-site bids each institution provides to the NCAA. Those bids were received by Nov. 12.
“There is confusion out there when it comes to this part of the process,” O’Day said. “I think people believe they can buy their way in with their bid. That’s not the case. It is a big misconception. The financial pieces aren’t looked at until the bracket is set. At that point, it becomes a situation where we have to look at the bids. We have to look at containing costs.”
The committee began its deliberations at 6 p.m. Saturday and adjourned around midnight.
Many of the members weren’t sure how long the first session would last since the bracket was bigger than in previous years. Concerns about an all-nighter turned out to be unfounded, at least partly because computers, instead of paper ballots, were used for voting.
After it finished putting the bracket together, the committee reconvened at 7 a.m. Sunday to determine if anyone had reservations about the previous night’s work. The committee spent another hour Sunday morning debating the last at-large berths in the championship.
The bracket was then sent to television partner ESPN, and a conference call was held with the cable sports network on-air personnel as it prepared to announce the bracket to the world at 10 a.m.
After the 30-minute show, O’Day conducted an online chat on NCAA.com that offered fans a chance to ask the committee chair questions.
Now, committee members will attend games throughout the playoffs culminating with a champion being crowned Jan. 7, in Frisco, Texas.
O’Day looks for a special event.
“By having some time between the semifinals and the final, it gives the student-athletes an opportunity to heal up,” he said. “They will be able to spend time with their families around the holidays. People can plan to attend the championship game. In the past, you were pushing everything into a couple of days, which makes it difficult even if you’re driving.”